Is surgical intervention more effective than non-surgical treatment for carpal tunnel syndrome? A systematic review

J Orthop Surg Res. 2011 Apr 11:6:17. doi: 10.1186/1749-799X-6-17.


Background: Carpal tunnel syndrome is a common disorder in hand surgery practice. Both surgical and conservative interventions are utilized for the carpal tunnel syndrome. Although certain indications would specifically indicate the need for surgery, there is a spectrum of patients for whom either treatment option might be selected. The purpose of this systematic review was to compare the efficacy of surgical treatment of carpal tunnel syndrome with conservative treatment.

Methods: We included all controlled trials written in English, attempting to compare any surgical interventions with any conservative therapies. We searched Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (The Cochrane Library Issue 1, 2010), MEDLINE (1980 to June 2010), EMBASE (1980 to June 2010), PEDro (searched in June 2010), international guidelines, computer searches based on key words and reference lists of articles. Two reviewers performed study selection, assessment of methodological quality and data extraction independently of each other. Weighted mean differences and 95% confidence intervals for patient self-reported functional and symptom questionnaires were calculated. Relative risk (RR) and 95% confidence intervals for electrophysiological studies and complication were also calculated.

Results: We assessed seven studies in this review including 5 RCTs and 2 controlled trials. The methodological quality of the trials ranged from moderate to high. The weighted mean difference demonstrated a larger treatment benefit for surgical intervention compared to non surgical intervention at six months for functional status 0.35( 95% CI 0.22, 0.47) and symptom severity 0.43 (95% CI 0.29, 0.57). There were no statistically significant difference between the intervention options at 3 months but there was a benefit in favor of surgery in terms of function and symptom relief at 12 months (0.35, 95% CI 0.15, 0.55 and 0.37, 95% CI 0.19 to 0.56). The RR for secondary outcomes of normal nerve conduction studies was 2.3 (95% CI 1.2, 4.4), while RR was 2.03 (95% CI 1.28 to 3.22) for complication, both favoring surgery.

Conclusion: Both surgical and conservative interventions had treatment benefit in carpal tunnel syndrome. Surgical treatment has a superior benefit, in symptoms and function, at six and twelve months. Patient underwent surgical release were two times more likely to have normal nerve conduction studies but also had complication and side effects as well. Given the treatment differential and potential for adverse effects and that conservative interventions benefitted a substantial proportion of patients, current practice of a trial of conservative management with surgical release for severe or persistent symptoms is supported by evidence.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Carpal Tunnel Syndrome / physiopathology
  • Carpal Tunnel Syndrome / surgery*
  • Controlled Clinical Trials as Topic
  • Humans
  • Neural Conduction / physiology
  • Orthopedic Procedures / methods*
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Treatment Outcome